'Bel-Air' Star Olly Sholotan on Will and Carlton's Bromance and Addressing Pressures of Black Excellence in the Show (Exclusive)

When Bel-Air first premiered on Peacock last year, fans of the famed '90s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air were terrified that the reimagined dramatized version would ruin the legacy of the show. And they were happily proved wrong. With a cast made up of virtual unknowns on the small screen and a new spin on the plot, it has become an extension of what the original was and provides deeper substance than the first. The biggest twist in the storyline is the relationship between Will Smith [Jabari Banks] and his well-off cousin, Carlton Banks [Olly Sholotan]. Instead of the playful banter we saw in the original, the new Bel-Air resembles more of the story between the well-known biblical figures, Cane and Abel. As Will enters into new territory as the hot kid from Philly who seemingly fits in with ease, cousin Carlton is filled with envy and sabotage. And it takes until the end of season one for things to make a drastic turn. In Season 2, we see them lean on one another. 

With the season coming to a close, viewers are anticipating how Carlton will handle the continuous pressures of being the overachiever. Carlton has been a polarizing figure in this series, and despite fans' outcry over how well Sholotan portrays the former menacing character, he's become a standout. PopCulture spoke with Sholotan about Carlton and Will's journey from Seasons 1-2, his personal character development, and how the storyline serves as an example of the mental anguish the pressure of Black excellence can have on its youth. New episodes air on Peacock every Thursday. 

PC: Congratulations on the success of the show. We know that you guys have already been renewed for season three, which we'll get into later. But let's just talk about what we already have seen thus far. Obviously, a big topic of the show since the show premiered last year was the dynamic between Will and Carlton. Now, that was a major shake-up that we never saw coming.

OS:  Yes.

What was your initial take on the dramatized relationship between the two characters?

I'm not going to lie, I was a little apprehensive just because you're right, one thing from that original show is, and always has been, Will and Carlton, they have this sort of almost Tweedle-Dee, Tweedle-Dumb relationship, and they help each other grow and they, over the course of a series, they grow together. But even though we're coming at it from a different angle, I do still think that, especially with season two, we get to see more of that. We get to see that bromance form, and we get to watch them become better men, navigating the world as young Black men in America, we get to watch them become better people and iron sharpens iron in a way.

Speaking of the bromance that's forming between the two in season two, obviously we saw what sparked that in season one. A lot of it had to do with Will basically exiling himself from the family, and Carlton being scared because he had lost one of his only companions that he felt like he really had. How are you enjoying the journey between the two of them and do you feel like it's more realistic to have this kind of portrayal of their ups and downs versus what we saw in the '90s sitcom?

Well, my main thing is it's nice to actually go to work and get to have fun with Jabari [Banks]. That's really my main thing. All of the first season we chose to work and then we'd yell at each other. But from a plot perspective, our goal always has been to show realism with our show, to show real life, to show what it's actually like, and I think that when you look at two young men who have grown up in completely different upbringings, completely different places, and then now you kind of toss them into high school and youth – I think it makes sense that they'll kind of have these moments of being on the same page and moments of not being on the same page.

One of the things that I love about watching Carlton's story is that he really represents greatness as a scholar and as a pillar of his community, as a young Black man within the upper echelon of America and Black America specifically. But obviously, there's a lot of pressure that comes with that. Carlton's drug use is not something that we've normally seen with children of privilege in the Black community highlighted on television in this way. How do you feel about how relevant and timely that storyline has been?

I take what I do and what we do with the show very, very seriously. Knowing that there's some kid out there that's going to watch our show and feel seen and feel recognized and feel that, "Oh, this is my story. I want to get help." That is so important to me. Look, this isn't something that we talk about a lot. We don't spend a lot of time talking about this idea of Black excellence and how forcing Black people to be 112 times better than their white counterparts and how that's damaging to young Black kids. It's a very special story and journey for me to tell, and the implications of that, again, showing Carlton's drug use. I think it's great that we're shedding the light on that.

How has the reception of this new version of Carlton been for you? Because it's been a rollercoaster, right? A lot of people were not feeling Carlton in the beginning and now he's really become a fan favorite in season two, and who knows what's going to happen moving forward. But how has it been for you to go on this rollercoaster ride with viewers?

Well, first I will say "I told you so." That's my main thing. Because I remember that I was like, "Look, y'all chill out. Wait a second." At the end of Episode 7, Carlton has this whole speech and he loses out on the Founder's Award, and it's when he relapses for the first time. He gives this whole speech and he says, "I know I'm not the only one that's laughed too hard of a joke I shouldn't have or just allowed something to happen even though I knew it was wrong." At the end of the speech he says, "But I know I'm not the only one. I'm just the only one you see." Actually, the line, "I'm not the only one you see," wasn't originally written.

It just, that speech just ended in. "I know I'm not the only one," but when I was reading that speech, I was like, in a way, I think this is kind of meta, because I think Carlton was giving that speech to everyone in the story, but I also think in a way he was giving that speech to everyone at home. Because I think that it's very easy with characters like Carleton to judge them off the bat and go, "This is who this person is. I don't like them, da da da." But if the show goes on, the audience gets to see more of themselves in him and they resonate with him. On a personal level, there is also the difficulty of playing a character that a lot of people don't like, right? But we do what we can. It's worth it for the art.

Now, what are you hoping for Carlton's journey moving forward? As you mentioned, we are really getting to see his character development and his growth from season to season, or honestly in this case, it's an episode-by-episode basis. What would you like to see with Carlton in Season 3?

I want to see Carlton embrace his flaws. I think that a lot of the growth Carlton has to do has a lot to do with just embracing his imperfections and rather than trying to fix his anxiety, just learning to grow and deal with it, learning to live with it. Because I think in that... I was actually talking to someone today, not today, the other day, and they mentioned this idea of the... Oh my God, I hope I don't butcher this, but I think it's called the paradoxical nature of change or something like that, where it's like the more you try to change something, sometimes the longer it stays the same. I think that Carlton needs to find acceptance of his uniqueness, I suppose.

Now outside of Carlton, who's been your favorite character to watch on the show?

Oh, come on. You know I'm going to say Carlton. You know I'm going to say Carlton.

Outside of Carlton.

Who's been my favorite character? Who's been my favorite character? Dang, that's tough because I love... You know what? Phil. Phil's story, this season has been very, very interesting. Especially with episode 10, we kind of see this idea unfold regarding what are the ramifications of fighting to make sure your kids have everything that they can have? What are the ramifications of working very hard to provide totally and entirely for your family? Sometimes it blows up in your face, and I don't know. I think that idea is very, very... I find that idea very interesting.

I watched something with you in the rest of the cast on, I want to say YouTube, where you spoke about what your goal was next for your career and you said that you wanted an EGOT by 30. I think you said by 30.

Yes, yes, yes.

PC:  Let's talk about how you plan on making that happen. What new projects do you have in the works? I know Bel Air takes up a good amount of filming. Outside of that, what type of projects are you looking to delve into to showcase your range as a performer?

Here's the thing I will say: The whole EGOT by 30, it's less about the actual physical EGOT and more about, I think I have a commitment to excellence. I have a commitment to achieving my wildest dreams, I suppose. But I'm working on music. Really, once we wrap Bel-Air, I'm always, I literally just sit in the studio. I sit in the studio and I'm just working on music all the time. I have scripts that I'm reading that I'm not allowed to talk about because that's how the job works and a day will come in the future when everyone can finally hear about what I'm involved in. But I want to write music for TV shows. I want to write scripts. I think that we're in this unique place in entertainment right now where the sky's kind of the limit with art and our only limitations are what we as artists put on ourselves. I'm all about removing the limits of my own art.